Forget the Inca, this was Peru’s first major empire, and thanks to ancient pottery we know how powerful it was

Ancient pottery has revealed the reach of the Wari empire, which was prominent in modern-day Peru between the seventh and eleventh centuries.

The groups that existed amid this empire used a material rather than written culture, so their art and objects provide archaeologists with the best glimpse into their unique history.

Now new research from several collaborating US institutions has shed light on the reach of the Wari through an unusual material: pigment.

“People sometimes think of the Inca as the first big empire in South America, but the Wari came first,” explains Luis Muro Ynoñán from the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

“Since they didn’t use writing… things like pottery would have been an important means for conveying social and political messages. The visual impact of these objects would have been super powerful.”

Analysing the composition of pigments used on ceramics from the Jequetepeque, Nasca and Moquegua valleys in modern day Peru, Muro Ynoñán and his colleagues observed black pigments composed of Manganese and Iron were similar across each region.

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A ceramic vessel from the moche region of northern peru with wari-influenced pigments and decoration technique.
A ceramic vessel from the Moche region of northern Peru with Wari-influenced pigments and decoration techniques. Credit: Field Museum anthropology collections

This, they suggest, was the outcome of the Wari facilitating access to their preferred pigments across territories for consistent imperial branding on earthenware, something the researchers describe as ensuring a “Wari experience of colour” that imbues objects with authority.

Even when the recipe for black pigments varied between regions, the use of Manganese was an enduring symbol of Wari power.

Whereas some cultures combined iron and calcium materials into their pigment palettes, the influx of Manganese was viewed by the researchers as a symbol of Wari cultural insertion, a kind of quality control across their sphere of influence where preferred materials were supplied for craftspeople to use, effectively as a ‘Made in’ label.

The use of ‘Wari black’ ensured the empire’s imprint was retained, even where ceramics retained a local flavour.

“In general in the Andean region, the colour black is related to the ancestors, to the night, to the passage of time,” Muro Ynoñán says.

“In Wari times, the color was likely important for imposing a specific Wari ideology to the communities they conquered.”

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The researchers hope their study highlights the people-centred nature of archaeological study, where technological ways of creating art, like Wari pottery, is influenced by communication between people: be it artist to artist or empire to maker.

“Artisans talked to each other and learned from each other,” says Dr Donna Nash, head of anthropology at the University of North Carolina Greensboro.

“Sometimes multiple ways of doing things, such as creating black lines and decoration on a pot, co-existed.

“These different approaches to the same problem may have persisted because of wealth or class differences, but it may have been that some people were willing to try new things, while others preferred their traditions.”

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